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July 06, 2007

Matte Painting

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I'm re-reading this book about matte painting, a form of movie special effects that is almost as old as the industry.

Modern matte "painting" is usually done on a computer. But into the 1980s it involved artists mostly using brushes and oil paints on sheets of glass.

During the heyday of Hollywood's studio system, major studios maintained matte painting shops -- and never publicized them. Matte painting saved studios large amounts of production money because sets didn't have to be comprehensive (that is, a complete room or building, say, didn't have to be built) and some location shooting could be avoided. The reason why this good thing was hushed up was that the moguls were afraid that the public would feel cheated because what they were seeing wasn't "real." Quite a difference from today where effects are an important reason for going to movies for many people.

Here is an example from Earthquake of the work of Albert Whitlock, perhaps the greatest matte painter of all.

This is the scene filmed on the studio backlot. Note the trees at the left -- they're not wanted. Nor are the upper parts of the buildings.

Here's Whitlock's matte painting.

And this is the blended shot seen by audiences. Not all of the matte is seen here.

Whitlock was English, as was Peter Ellenshaw, who was just about as good. Here is a Leonard Maltin piece on Ellenshaw that is worth reading.

Matte painters normally used large brushes and painted freely -- not what one might expect considering that the painting and the live-action setting need to mesh imperceptibly. The reason it works is because the camera is viewing the painting from a distance -- much like a gallery viewer might observe a painting from across the room -- and the rough-seeming details blend into something that appears realistic.

Sometimes matte paintings are not supposed to look realistic. An example is the pastel mattes used to depict the Emerald CIty and countryside in the The Wizard of Oz; here the concept was to give the movie a "storybook" feel.

Even with a top-notch matte painter wielding the brush, the artwork can become apparent to audiences if given enough time. For that reason, matte shots are usually kept under five or six seconds duration.

Occasionally, the matte art simply isn't right and its fakery is instantly obvious. Let me cite two examples from historically-important films -- not low-budget jobs.

More than a year ago I wrote here about Chesley Bonestell, best known today for his paintings of other planets and spaceships. He also was a matte artist. One of his better-known mattes was the moon panorama from Destination Moon (1950).

Bonestell did a good deal of the matte work for Orson Welles' Citizen Kane. I saw Citizen Kane only once, about 40 years ago. But I remember that some of the matte work was painfully obvious. In particular, I'm thinking of outdoor scenes looking up at New York buildings such as Kane's newspaper offices.

Another dud was Ralph McQuarrie's depiction of the cloud city in George Lucas' The Empire Strikes Back. It looks like a painting, not a real place. I'm not sure why Lucas had McQuarrie paint mattes. After all, McQuarrie was a designer-presentation artist who had never done matte work until then -- and the result shows it.

Here are samples of matte and film concept paintings by the artists mentioned above.


Ellenshaw spent many years with Walt Disney. Above is a concept painting of the island Volcania from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

I couldn't find the Citizen Kane shots mentioned above. The best I could do was this view of Kane's estate Xanadu, probably from the opening sequence.

This shows the Millennium Falcon cruising above the cloud city in "Empire." Once again, I couldn't locate the low-quality images. In particular, I'm thinking of mattes showing city towers in a rosey glow caused by early evening light (or perhaps caused by a red-star sun).



posted by Donald at July 6, 2007


Thanks for the book link. I love matte paintings, and remember being fascinated by them as a kid. I do have to disagree with you on labeling the Cloud City in "Empire Strikes Back" a dud. I've seen that movie several times and those images have always struck me as lovely and poetic -- though admittedly different in style from the typical Star Wars imagery, which emphasized the beat-up, grungy look of the futuristic technology.

Maybe I tend to like the artificiality and "staginess" of mattes more than the next guy. It also depends on the movie. For example, I see CITIZEN KANE as a tall tale movie, and so the artificiality of the mattes in it doesn't bother me.

Posted by: Steve on July 6, 2007 5:13 PM

Donald, Thanks so much for sharing this. So far, the only filmmakers to get book-length treatment have been directors and actors. I once wrote a list of others who deserve attention as well -- and it didn't occur to me to put "matte artist" on it. And yet, in some movies, probably no one person has more influence on what the viewer actually sees!

Posted by: Lester Hunt on July 6, 2007 5:20 PM

Fun, tks. Gotta love the collaborative arts, no? So many talented people pitch in. Funny how a film gets known by one name only, typically -- the director, or the star, as if that person did everything. I suppose it's a worthwhile convenience, though. But it's always great to learn more about the other people who played creative roles too. I'm with Steve on one thing -- I sometimes don't mind a little fakiness in backgrounds, matte paintings, effects, etc. I find the computer-perfection of current effects a little too much -- they make me yearn for the old days of Ray Harryhausen monsters and hand-painted backdrops, effects that brought the imagination to life without overwhelming it.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 6, 2007 7:22 PM

The Powell-Pressburger movie Black Narcissus (1947) features some stupendous examples of matte painting.
Also won the Oscar for Technicolor cinematography. Plus it's simply a great movie.

Posted by: american fez on July 6, 2007 7:46 PM

High quality staging has its own aesthetic appeal. A drama is not a documentary. But breaking the reality requires more than just technical chops, it takes taste. The Whitlock "Earthquake" example is really impressive. I wouldn't mind CGI effects if they weren't so predictable and gratuitous. There should be a rule that during any CGI explosion, a picture of the geek at the keyboard should appear in the corner of the screen.

Posted by: Fred Wickham on July 6, 2007 10:19 PM

In China early in the XXc there was a well developed style of adding color to B&W photographs on glass. It really went far beyond that description, though, because the effort wasn't always just to duplicate natural colors or copy exact photographic images. There was a travelling exhibition I saw, but I can't remember where it came from. The best examples were pretty intense with sharp contrasts, expressionistic or almost surrealistic.

Posted by: John Emerson on July 7, 2007 11:56 AM

Who did the mattes for "Forbidden Planet"? Those really added a lot to the movie, and are still remembered fondly. . .

Posted by: Derek Lowe on July 7, 2007 2:56 PM

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